Stay home when you're sick!

We're now well into flu season and more and more people around me are getting sick. Too often people come into the office slobbering and coughing all over themselves spreading their highly infectious flu germs. This is clearly a problem.

Frankly I'm tired of being surrounded by sick people in the workplace coughing on me and my keyboard, putting their germ-infested hands into the M&M bowl, not covering their mouths when they sneeze and leaving dirty used facial tissue on their desk. It is disgusting. But worse than that, it inevitably leads to me getting sick and the other three people sitting near them.

A recent government review performed by the UK government has estimated, at least in the UK, that sickness (as measured by productivity losses associated with absence) costs the UK economy $24b per year and employers (as measured by sick pay) $14.5b per year. An even older US study performed in 2002 estimated the productivity costs to be $25b on the US economy.

The cost of the common cold

So not only is it gross when a person is hacking up mucus next to you, it also has fairly significant consequences on the productivity of the organization and the economy. Its a fairly broad problem, with a relatively straightforward solution. It has obviously been having strong effects if recommendations have been around since World War II.

Now colds and the flu are viruses that are spread primarily in groups of humans through contact. They are typically picked up by direct contact and subsequently lead to infection.

The general recommendation is to stay 6 feet away from a sick person as droplets of moisture ejected when a sick person coughs or sneezes might be present in the surrounding air. It is also recommended to not touch anything that person touches, not come into contact with their skin (or nose/mouth) and especially not to share food. A sick person should cover their mouth and nose when they cough or sneeze.

In most workplace environments this is pretty difficult. The person sitting next to you or in front of you is probably less than 6 feet away. Chances are they're touching door handles, food utensils, stationery and computer peripherals that you ultimately come into contact with. Even with the ubiquitous presence of hand sanitizer there is still a high likelihood that you'll contract the same virus.

The correlation is pretty obvious. Sick people coming to the office spread the illness and infect others. In most office environments I've been in, the number of people that fall ill after one person gets sick is generally greater than 1 (i.e. no office have I been to has contained a virus). As each person who is sick becomes less productive and then ultimately spends a day or two at home, it ends up being a pretty big burden on the company.

Coughs and sneezes spread diseases

If the correlation is so obvious, then why do people still come to the office when they're coughing up a lung? Because unfortunately, there is still a strong perverse culture that equates staying at home when sick with weakness. This is a flawed belief and should be questioned. Given that we have the tools now to complete most tasks from home, there is no strong reason to compel people to come to the workplace.

Thankfully more and more workplaces are adopting clear policies and providing strong recommendations for sick employees to stay home when they're sick. Sick employees that need to complete work or have pressing deadlines are being given the tools to be able to work from home without infecting others.

Meetings can usually be dialed into via conference calls. VPNs, Google Docs and other network interfaces allow for access to relevant work related documents. Collaboration tools are generally available on the internet and via the browser. More and more employees are issued with laptops, and if not, can configure their home computer to work remotely.

Perhaps if your job requires you to be present in order to be productive, then you still have a strong reason to come to work. Perhaps you get paid by the hour so not being in the workplace has greater consequences. In the end, taking a day off of work so you can focus on hydrating yourself, eating well and sleeping right will have far greater positive consequences than laboring for a week whilst still sick and getting your co-workers sick.

In the end, the result is still the same. If you're sick, stay at home! And spare the rest of us your germs!